How Hierarchies Damage Even Those at the Top

6 min read

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Many of us work in hierarchical organizations, where workers are beneath managers, who are beneath boards or executives, who are often beneath owners.

In most hierarchical organizations, the largest number of people (with the smallest amount of power) are usually at the bottom levels, and power becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer people until a pyramid forms. Often, there’s just one person (or family or small group) at the top of hierarchical pyramids.

It’s Lonely at the Top, and Empathy Suffers

The general rule of thumb in hierarchical systems is that we must study and understand the needs of the people above us because this is where the power is. We often need to know and understand the people at our level in order to protect our position and do our work. But we may not need to pay much attention to the people below us at all.

Because of the baked-in inequalities of hierarchies, people at the bottom usually need to develop extensive empathy skills (because they need to be aware of the entire organization) that may tip into unhealthy hyper-empathy, which reliably leads to worker burnout.

People in the middle (usually managers) may also develop unhealthy hyper-empathy as they deal with the needs of those below them and the demands of those above them. Usually, middle managers have tremendous amounts of responsibility but very little power or authority, which is another reliable recipe for burnout.

As people climb these ladders (or if they’re born at the top of them), there are fewer and fewer people to look up to, and fewer and fewer people at their level. In this relative isolation, empathy can degrade into hypo-empathy (a troubling lack of empathy) even if people started out with normal empathic skills, because empathy is about connection, while hierarchy is about division, separation, and competition.

Empathy is a skill as much as it is a trait, and it requires continual practice and recalibration. At the top levels of hierarchies, empathy may decrease simply because there are fewer (and less diverse) people to empathize with.

Empathy Connects, Hierarchies Divide

Our access to power in a hierarchy may depend upon our ability to create transactional, upward-focused, competitive relationships rather than empathic ones, and we may lose our awareness of (and empathy for) the people below us, and eventually, for everyone else.

Much research has explored the damaging effects of hierarchical systems, specifically regarding their negative effects on empathy. Though narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is very rare (affecting fewer than 1 percent of the population), studies have found that hierarchical organizations such as the military, medical schools, and academia seem to attract (or create) narcissistic and hypo-empathic people.

For instance, 20 percent of military personnel and 17 percent of first-year medical students display signs of NPD, while some studies have suggested that 50 percent of CEOs have narcissistic tendencies or full-fledged NPD.

Hierarchies, with their competitive race to the top, tend to attract, reward, and preferentially select for competitive, hypo-empathic, and narcissistic behavior and NPD. Superiority requires inferiors and a lack of healthy relatedness, and it creates a perfect (yet empathically devastating) environment for people throughout the hierarchy.

When Hypo-Empathy Flourishes, Hyper-Empathy Becomes a Necessary Balancing Force

Research clearly identifies the hypo-empathy that tends to flourish at the top of hierarchies, but my own work as a consultant has helped me identify the corresponding hyper-empathy that’s required by people at the bottom.

If you think systematically, it makes sense. We’re an intensely social species, and we affect each other in profound ways. A severe lack in one area of a social structure will often require people in other areas to overcompensate.

Luckily, knowing about the problems hierarchies cause can help us address them. We humans created these structures, and we can understand them well enough to create better ones.

Detoxifying the Pyramid

Most of us have worked in (and struggled with) hierarchical organizations, but we may not know that these unique social structures are not needed in many of the places we find them. Considering the damage they do to the empathic abilities of workers in every part of the system, it’s important to take an objective look at them.

1) Take a Reality Check: Do you need a hierarchy?

Many organizations fall into hierarchical patterns unconsciously, because it’s all anyone knows. They think: We need workers and managers and owners, and we should stack them in a pyramid.

But beyond creating layers of power differences, what does a hierarchy do for your organization? Is it the most efficient way to function? Does it foster healthy empathy, communication between departments and levels, and workplace mental health? If the answers to these questions are no, it’s time to reassess the value of hierarchical structures in your workplace.

2) Equalize and Reconnect: Create opportunities for healthy collaboration and healthy empathy

Businesses in the U.S. were found to have more than twice the managers needed for efficiency (at a whopping cost of more than $3 trillion per year). Ask yourself: Do we need as many managers as we have? Or do we need any? What are our underlying philosophies about our people’s native intelligence, ethics, and ability to work without constant, power-based oversight?

In many organizations, these underlying philosophies are not explored, and “business as usual” takes over. Workers become cogs to be managed instead of fully aware individuals who bring unique abilities to their work.

In your own organization, you can foster cross-departmental collaborations and equality-based connections between people. You can also watch out for the presence of hypo-empathy and hyper-empathy, and take these as signs that equality, collaboration, and deeper communication are needed.

3) Empower: Return autonomy to the people at the bottom and restore full humanity to people at the top

When workers are treated as bricks in a pyramid, their engagement tends to plummet. And when managers and owners see people as bricks or cogs, their own humanity suffers.

Returning autonomy to workers means trusting their innate work ethic and removing everything that reduces engagement, such as performance reviews, top-down management, write-ups, and other infantilizing approaches.

Restoring full humanity to people at the top means reducing the constraints of hierarchy, welcoming them back into healthy, peer-based relationships, and freeing them from unnecessary policing of their workers.

These steps can take time because they challenge long-held (and damaging) ideas about how people work, but they’re necessary steps.

Challenge Unhealthy Traditions and Reclaim Respect

In many cases, hierarchical systems are like unhealthy family traditions, where people keep a troubling behavior alive simply because “it’s how we’ve always done things.” However, hierarchical structures are often completely unnecessary for the effective running of teams, businesses, and organizations.

We don’t need to uphold damaging social structures that don’t support us. We especially don’t need organizations that reduce the amount of healthy empathy that’s available in our struggling world.

If your organization stumbled into creating a hierarchy, you and your colleagues can make changes and find a structure that’s efficient and protects connection, communication, empathy, and workplace mental health.

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